First blood to the Hong Kong migrant workers' struggle - Call for the development of a labour congress of migrant workers' unions

The migrant workers of Hong Kong - who have developed an independent group of unions and achieved almost 100% membership of unions, social and political groups, churches and agencies - have won a major victory in their militant action to prevent any further pay cuts. What remains are the demands to defeat any proposed changes in working conditions, fees and number caps and the new demands raised in a young movement that has now tasted first blood.




The migrant workers of Hong Kong - who have developed an independent group of unions and achieved almost 100% membership of unions, social and political groups, churches and agencies - have won a major victory in their militant action to prevent any further pay cuts. What remains are the demands to defeat any proposed changes in working conditions, fees and number caps and the new demands raised in a young movement that has now tasted first blood.

The mood of all the unions involved in the struggle - some 17 separate unions - is one of elation and of a knowledge that we must now prepare for the next stage of the campaign. Further to this the significance of this victory has not been missed by the wider labour movement.

These workers having suffered a pay cut and then a freeze for 6 years, faced wholesale attacks. Many of these workers earn less than HK$2,000 per month for up to 113 hours per week! Their numbers total some 235,120 with some 67 percent or 155,790 being from the Philippines, Indonesia 68,400, Thailand 7,000, and other nationals 3,930. In a series of demonstrations the cause and demands of the movement have found an increasing echo; May Day 2001 - 2,000 mainly migrant workers rally; November - 2,000 migrant workers demonstrate; 16th December - 4,000; New Years Day - 5,000 (including the mass congregation of a local church who took this day off worship!) and 13 January, 3,000.

They have won the first round of battle as the government has capitulated under pressure of a unified Migrant Workers' movement that gained mass support in the background of economic uncertainty and a developing and generalized labour struggle across Hong Kong. The power of labour was demonstrated in no uncertain manner. The government, in response to the projected annual deficit for 2001 of HK$80 billion, tried to launch a programme of wholesale attacks against the Hong Kong workers. They chose what they felt to be the weakest section of the working class here, the migrant workers, to commence that fight. Whilst the migrant workers' union was mobilising to the streets, the government backed down not only on this issue but on the proposed cut of 47% of civil service jobs, transport workers gained victory such as those of Lantau who, faced with a 70% cut in jobs, came away with an 8% pay rise! Cathay Pacific pilots re-entered the fray of battle to be joined with the threat of solidarity action by their flight attendants.

Migrant workers face the most difficult of conditions given that they are subject to arrest and deportation for militant action. The bosses believed they would be cowed by the strength of the state. The state was unable however, to judge the nature and the mood of this movement. The warnings of retribution of the state fell on deaf ears as direct labour action again proved the power of organised labour. This struggle gave impetus to other workers as the young movement of migrant workers under a militant leadership defied the so called odds by mass organisation and gained eventual victory.

The demonstrations of the movement prior to victory were some of the largest seen since 1999 and the one day strike and rally of 14,000 civil servants against privatisation. But the migrant workers are certainly the biggest labour movement since the revolutionary period of 1967. This for a movement that was only a few hundred strong at the beginning of 2001. The rally of the 13 January also marked the unity of organizing groups which encompass the main Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB) and ten large groups, the smaller Coalition for Migrant Rights (CMR) which encompasses some ten smaller organising groups and NGO's and the Church organizations which have illusions amongst large sections of the migrants workers. The basis of unity between these either organic or NGO led organizations, the organic being the far more influential, is based on the common struggle of the Migrant Workers themselves. The call by the Marxists for a united front in the face of the split in the leadership of the movement between the AMCB and the CMR - with the Church waiting in the wings to proffer moral support, prayers and curses - has found an echo. Already the rank and file themselves, despite the leadership, are conducting united work. As the Marxists recognised the tendency for the working class as it moves into struggle to form its own struggle separate from that of the leadership.

The unity shown and that an orientation and delegation has been sent from AMCB to the Churches and most importantly the CMR arises from discussions held by the Marxists with both groups to discuss the basis upon which this "problem" could be dealt with in a non chauvinistic way.

The intervention of the Marxists was done at a critical juncture in the face of rising threats from the Government over strong action against labour unrest, propaganda on behalf of the employers and the liberal politicians who think a cut "would be good" whilst the migrant workers enjoy less than 1% of these people's income! The Government could see a split - rival demonstrations and rival rallies, though on 16 December 2001 they did converge. Alongside programme is the further mobilization of the rank and file including those affiliated with Church organizations and NGOs to this movement which is as a result of the correct leadership of the AMCB and CMR whose organisers' experience of their home countries of the Philippines and Indonesia has taught the lesson on organization and action well.

This pressure of the movement was also reflected in the recent interventions by the Labour ministers of the Philippines and of Indonesia, who since our last report were joined by their counterparts of Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand! [Please see below for links to earlier reports]. The Philippine representative arrived at our international airport a very embarrassed and sheepish 'peoples' negotiator. Just prior to the journey, the President of the Philippines, Arroyo, announced to the media that her delegate to the Hong Kong government would propose a cut of between 5-10% of the migrant worker salary! These negotiators were ostensibly coming to help the workers - what a help! On arrival and after meeting what were described by the honourable lady delegate as "representatives of militant organizations" (the leadership of the majority section of the migrant workers), she was forced to retract her own bosses' statement and instead said she would ask the government to "have a good heart", this after Arroyo said of the 5-10% cut idea: "That would be a good start"!

Now after the recent 5,000 rally on 1 January 2002 the Education and Manpower Bureau has warned the movement, "We strongly advise against speculative actions and political posturing which would unnecessarily politicise a well-established annual wage mechanism." The only people speculating and posturing are the bosses and their representatives but this does serve as both a warning and an indication of the fear of the local bureaucracy. The end of the automatic labour conciliation scheme is feared. Their response, you can expect, will be to strike break and union bust and, in the case of migrant workers, it can be taken as a threat of arrest and deportation for those breaking the so-called union laws. In the face of a growing movement the mettle and resolve of these so called gentlemen will be tested.

Our perspectives prior to the decision and of victory were clear:

"In the event of a cut in pay or a cap on numbers the movement will have to be escalated. The lessons learnt from the British Health Service Workers' Strikes of the 1980s by unionists was that solidarity action in protest and strike action, international solidarity campaigns as well as very selective action in the industry could win industrial victory. The difficulty of these workers is that given the mainly domestic employment, problems on contract and so forth the question of strike action is a question of very last resort. For unionists the migrant workers are as per any worker in a 'sensitive' industry, the problem of emasculation of the strike weapon from real risk of imprisonment and deportation means more that continued and escalated protests must be organized on the migrant workers' Sunday off work, direct links with the civil servants, Cathay Pacific airways strikers and developing movements must be built and we ensure that solidarity action is taken by fellow workers in the name of the migrant workers as well as themselves. This is crucial. The existing policy of orientation to employers must continue but the orientation to the civil servants who face industrial action themselves will be critical.

"In the event of a deferral of decision the movement will have to prepare the ground for future action. With unity in the movement and a mass demonstration of 5,000 and a background of industrial movements and of international pressure [sic] it cannot be ruled out that a decision will be delayed. In the meantime we have to consider to orientate the movement to the wider sphere of workers in a more concrete manner. The protests must be continued as with the orientation to the civil service and other workers, but the opportunity to demand to ballot the entire membership on non-acceptance of the proposed 'reforms' and to prepare the ground for selective industrial action of key sector workers such as those in the employ of the bosses and the Government officers. This requires time of preparation, the fundraising and the support for these workers. The exercise will solidify the base of support throughout the 236,000 or so migrant workers.

"In the event of victory. This is by no means the end. Some form of a review will again take place. Again this is the point of consolidation of the ranks of the movement, the taking of the movement to the labour movement of Hong Kong and of the peoples' own nations and the development of a true congress of industry unions for migrant workers. The embryo is there and any victory would not be down to the questions of gods but of questions of correct labour organization. We see any such congress as an affiliate with other labour congresses to a party of labour that may develop to properly represent the interest of labour.

"The task generally is to build representation and build political levels of the membership and to build the numbers of that membership."

It is worth to note that Hong Kong labour encompasses the following labour congresses: Federation of Trades Unions: 500,000; Confederation of Trade Unions: 120,000. As an organization of 236,000; the migrant workers must assume the proportions of a general council of its some 17 affiliate unions. The time of deferral or victory against the government would give time to organize this and prepare to re-enter the stage of battle as the second most powerful labour congress in Hong Kong.

Already the Marxists have launched this initiative to build a congress of labour of migrant workers' unions and have received initial support from many ranks of unsullied labour activists and the migrant workers themselves. Cahaya, the Marxist magazine of Indonesia has played a critical role in developing this programme. Already Cahaya has a solid influence within the two Indonesian Migrant Workers' Unions with Indonesian Socialist Education Project (ISEP) to launch a programme of Marxist education in Bahasa Indonesia for Hong Kong's Indonesian migrant workers.This initiative of ISEP by the Indonesian and international comrades of is a shinning example of how to organise political workers, especially the youth. A further development from this has been the establishment of the PTUDC supporters group with a base amongst radical Pakistani youth. For Hong Kong the links between these two communities are strong.

Already new battles for migrant workers are surfacing. The number of early contract terminations is now a real issue as is the proposed cap on the numbers which would mean a cut of 133,110 jobs or 57%. As the economy worsens and median income families suffer loss of income the migrant worker is the first to go.

We do demand that apart from the full entitlement of pay be either won for the family for breach of contract and that where appropriate the government uses its powers to pay such compensation, that the Migrant Workers be allowed to look for other work in other industries whether in the understaffed health care industry, education which is in crisis, construction which is part of the government's fast track proposals for infrastructure projects, industry and in small business. It is ironic that most "maids" have higher levels of academic qualification than most of their employers. Migrant workers are a potential boon for the Hong Kong economy and we do have the resources. We call for an amnesty for these workers and their families as with all migrant workers so that they may assist Hong Kong in spearheading economic recovery.

The economic consequences and solutions are recognized by the movement in its call for "real economic solutions". When a cabinet minister of the Philippines only receives the equivalent to 160% of the HK$3,670.00 minimum wage of the Migrant Worker in Hong Kong the impoverishment and the absolute corruption of countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia is evident. Without the overthrow of this capitalist system of anarchy and corruption solutions cannot be found to the bleak lives of the workers and farmers of these Asian nations. The consequence of this is the recognition of the need for socialism back home as well as here in Hong Kong.

The fact that the Migrant Workers have begun this current struggle of the Hong Kong workers is also particularly telling on the nature of this movement - it is organic and strong. Migrant Workers have the most to lose from militant action, and their bravery and strength can be measured in this and their numbers. The migrant workers employed personally by the union leaders to clean their houses and wash their cars know more about unionism and politics than they do!

Messages of solidarity and support to:

Victory is ours but the battle is yet to be won, we demand:

  • Build The Migrant Workers Unions
  • For A Minimum Wage Of HK$5,000 per Month or HK$50 per Hour
  • No Job Cuts - No Pay Cuts - Defend Hong Kong's Economy 
  • Full Amnesty For All Migrant Workers And Their Families - For The Right To Live And Work In Hong Kong - We Bring Education, Skills And Business

Migrant Workers Unions - Spearheading the Defence of all Hong Kong Workers